A Case For Sortition

A Case For Sortition

By ENRIQUE PEREZ | June 20, 2017

The United States is noted for having an imperfect democracy. Congressional districts have various distortions that have led to the overrepresentation of certain groups. For instance, there exists a systematic bias in favor of the Republican Party due to the greater geographic spread of its voters compared to the Democrats. Despite winning a larger share of the total vote in the 2012 House midterm election, the Democrats remained the minority party. The Senate itself has, by design, had the issue of low-population states being hugely overrepresented compared to the high-population states. Ignoring political parties, the demographics of Congress do not accurately reflect the makeup of the country. Minorities constitute 37% of the total population yet constitute only 19 percent of the current and most diverse Congress in history. Women similarly are half of the US population but are only 19 percent of the current Congress.

The old suspicion of Congress being in the hands of plutocratic elites is not entirely without merit either. The median net worth in America is around $80,000 whereas Congress’ is $450,000. A Princeton study found that public opinion has surprisingly little sway in legislation, with economic elites and special-interest groups having a disproportionate say over the rest. It is unsurprising the system has turned out this way since even campaigning for Congress requires money in the millions. Thus it is no wonder that there exist political parties despite the intent of the Founding Fathers. A system where money is this important necessitates alliances to ensure those with shared goals have the resources to win. Aggravating this even further is a first-past-the-post system ensuring that the party system remains binary with alternatives infeasible.

With many problems plaguing the representativeness of Congress, it would perhaps be wise to consider the example of the Athenians that inspired our democracy to mend the issue. One of the more unknown aspects of Athenian democracy was the strong use of sortition, or the use of lottery as a method of filling public offices. Besides the well known ecclesia, or Assembly, that any citizen could participate in there was also the boule. The boule being a body of 500 randomly selected members of the Athenian citizenry over the age of 30.  Its greatest power was the ability to determine the agenda to be voted in the Assembly. Besides this, the boule also controlled both the city’s finances and military and monitored the performance of magistrates.

The Athenian court system heavily utilized sortition. Its jurors, the dikastai, were a group of citizens, selected using the same criteria as the boule, meant to deliberate over and decide cases in the courts. The panels overseeing cases were drawn from a pool of 6,000 that in turn came from a random selection from each of Athens’ 10 tribes. Both private and public prosecutions fell under their purview with the severity of the case determining the size of the jury. A significant power held by these men was the ability to annul decisions of the Assembly if they were both challenged and deemed against the interest of the state.

Most magistrates in Athens were also given their positions by lot. Only 100 total magistrates were voted on by the Assembly as those positions, such as Strategos, had to be filled by one with professional experience. Contraptions known as kleroteria made possible selection by lottery as the size of the population made it impractical to do it by hand. Terms under the system lasted only a year and it was impossible for someone to serve two terms consecutively. Sortition ultimately was not limited to Athens as it was also implemented, albeit differently, in the Italian Republics of the Medieval period in places such as Venice and Florence.

The Athenian system addressed many of the issues that one could have with sortition and be carried on to the present day. In the modern era, rather than a kleroteria there exist advanced computers able to calculate who is to be selected and what the pool of candidates is to consist of. Specific positions requiring professional expertise can avoid selection by lot. Certain requirements, such as a minimum age for candidates, can be imposed upon the selected pool. Deriving this pool from each of the states ensures geographic representation much like how the 10 tribes had theirs guaranteed. Furthermore, the new hypothetical Congress would still very much operate in the current systems of checks and balances much like the boule and Assembly did with each other. While it would admittedly be difficult to convince the US population to adopt sortition there did already exists some precedence in the form of the jury system. 

 

Sortition will be representative despite its randomness due the mathematical law of large numbers. Over time as each successive term of this new hypothetical Congress comes and goes, the representative outcomes for specific sub-groups in the population will converge with the expected probabilities. These probabilities are themselves determined by their percentage of the total population. For example, if women are half the population, their expected proportion within the hypothetical Congress would also be half. As each one-year term ends, the composition of the sortitioned Congress will converge into this proportion if it did not on the first few. What applies to women would also apply to minorities, conservatives, liberals, left-handed people, and so on.

The example of Athens is telling of what could occur if implemented in the United States. The Athenian democracy lacked recognizable political parties or factions of any kind. The randomness by which power was handed and its temporary nature meant that the aristocratic class had no hope of coalescing into groups to influence the process or its actors. The positions being open to all citizens regardless of economic status meant that the Athenian government better represented its poorest citizens than any other Greek city-state at the time and its own pre-Solon state. The high turnover from short terms meant that a very large segment of Athens’ 30,000 citizens were active participants in political life. Mathematically, the sortitioned bodies were demographically representative of the Athenian citizen body. Most importantly, Athens operated on this form of democracy for centuries and at the height of its power, proving the system’s long term viability.

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